This installment of the History Project from Andrea Thomas is about Father Phil Widmann, the third St. Mary’s pastor of our “modern” era. He had the unenviable task of following the iconic Father Tom O’Connor, and while they were very different, both shared a strong dedication to the priesthood and to Catholic social teaching, and both loved their cats!
Writing about any person who is well-known definitely qualifies as a dangerous endeavor, especially when the person we remember was the spiritual leader for so many people for over four decades, more than 16 of those years at St. Mary’s.
Each of us has particular memories of Father Widmann; each of us had a unique relationship with this soft-spoken priest with an engaging smile and a wicked sense of humor.
While Father Phil and I had known each other in various professional capacities for years before he was officially “ours,” I was surprised when he said to me after one of his first liturgies as our pastor, “I heard something nice about you.” Taken aback, I laughed and asked “What?”
He replied, “I heard you were a Democrat.”
He was, in church parlance, “a second career man.” He worked at International Harvester for thirteen years, and he was a union man who took university classes at night before he entered seminary.
Early in his priesthood, because of his academic credentials, he was assigned to teach church history, morality, and doctrine to students at Bishop Dwenger High School.
He said that he initially thought classroom work might not be a good fit for him, but he soon began to look at teaching as one of the things he enjoyed most in his priesthood.
And indeed, his clear, concise, informative homilies were powerful testimony to this.
Father Phil was well-versed in historical theology and he brought to us a deep understanding of the demands of Catholic social teaching—something that occasionally, sadly, brought less than charitable comments, phone calls, and letters into his life.
His interest in history extended into the secular as well as the sacred. And, good priest that he was, he often focused on the intersection of the two—providing important perspective to those with a more limited understanding of how what used to be, influences both who we are now and what the future can bring. It was a warning of sorts not to confuse our roots and our ruts.
His knowledge of history played out in other ways also. One Sunday, he wished me a happy birthday. Seeing the surprise on my face, he commented, “Well, I can always remember your birthday because you share it with Adolf Hitler.”
As gentle as he appeared, he was fiercely dedicated to his Catholic roots and his priestly vocation—even when some of us might have wished for just a bit more flexibility.
He saw and expected in St. Mary’s—officially, he would remind us, St. Mary Mother of God—a parish that is open to Catholic faith that is alive, informed, active, and enthusiastic.
He liked us, even though he noted at one point that while we almost never sing hymns written before 1940, his other parish never sang anything written after 1940.
Following the iconic Father Tom O’Connor could not have been easy. But Father Phil did things his way, honoring Father Tom with a memorial wall, and honoring his even earlier predecessors with a veritable rogues’ gallery of portraits in the gathering area, and a parish history display near the entrance to Oechtering Hall.
When Bishop D’Arcy asked the parish to create an award for the wider community to honor the “next generation of Father Toms” Father Phil plunged ahead, and enjoyed the fact that one of the most popular recipients was former Fort Wayne Mayor Paul Helmke, a Lutheran and a known Republican.
As a parish, we mourned Father Widmann’s passing, knowing, of course, that our sadness is for ourselves, not him.
But there is some comfort, too, because we know that the illness and pain that intruded into his later years was finally gone.
I’d like to think he and Father Tom celebrate St. Patrick’s Day together over a bit of Jameson’s, sharing war stories about this incredible and, likely in both their minds, somewhat maddening, parish.
Our Grotto has been dedicated to Father Widmann’s memory.
But his true legacy is how his pastorate affected our lives.
His deep love of Catholic tradition included the call to live our faith in the secular world, reminding us that things like the Corporal Works of Mercy are not reserved just for people we like, people who look like us, or people who meet some vague standard of worthiness.
Father Phil challenged us to actually believe what we say we believe, and to act accordingly. That’s not always easy to do.
But as we heard him say, so many times, in so many homilies in this very place, “The choice, as always, is ours.”
– Andrea Thomas, January 2023